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Looney Tunes

What is it about cartoons? When my daughter was in fourth grade she took an after-school class in woodworking. The kids were making frames and then drawing cartoons to put in them.

Linnea comes from a family of book geeks, so her cartoon advocated reading books. And she drew images to indicate how many different kinds of books there are—adventure stories, romance novels, mysteries.

But when the teacher took a look at what Linnea had drawn, she was most dismayed and most disturbed: Linnea had included violent imagery in her cartoon. Linnea had drawn a dagger. A dagger of the sort any swashbuckling pirate or musketeer might keep at the ready.

This, her teacher pointed out, was inappropriate. A dagger is a violent weapon, she explained, as if Linnea didn’t know. We don’t draw pictures of violent weapons in school, she further informed her, as if Linnea had spray-painted an AK-47 on the principal’s office. Linnea tried to explain that she wasn’t advocating the use of daggers in the school yard (I’m sure she didn’t put it quite that way) but was using it as a symbol for a pirate, and pirates are adventurers, and adventurers are to be found in adventure stories.

But her teacher wasn’t interested in such advanced abstraction. Linnea had drawn a violent weapon which was unacceptable and now she simply had to draw something else. That was that.

What is it about cartoons?

Nearly three years ago portions of the Islamic world were incensed when a Danish newspaper published a dozen cartoons by Kurt Westergaard showing the prophet Mohammed wearing a bomb with a with a lit fuse for a turban. The protests and outcries among some Muslims were matched by arguments in favor of a free press by others.

But just as that storm passed, it quickly returned. In February of this year, Danish authorities arrested three people alleged to be plotting a “terror-related assassination” of Westergaard. The following day the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende, along with newspapers in Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands, republished the offending image. It wasn’t until last week that charges were dropped against one of the three Muslim men. Reuters quoted the prosecutor as saying that while there was information of a connection between the man and the assassination plot, it was not possible to “submit sufficient evidence.”

What is it about cartoons?

This week The New Yorker is taking heat from the Obama campaign after Barry Blitt’s cover drawing showed a stylized Barack Obama standing in what is meant to be the Oval Office, where a picture of Osama Bin Laden hangs above the mantle and an American flag burns in the hearth. The turbaned Obama is fist-bumping his gun-slinging, afro’d wife, Michelle.

The news release previewing the issue stated that the cover art, The Politics of Fear by Barry Blitt, “satirizes the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the presidential election to derail Barack Obama’s campaign.”

And the editor of The New Yorker is elsewhere quoted as saying that drawing lampoons the right for its rumor-mongering regarding Obama’s patriotism. “It’s clearly a joke, a parody of these crazy fears and rumors and scare tactics about Obama’s past and ideology,” Remnick told the Washington Post. “And if you can’t tell it’s a joke by the flag burning in the Oval Office, I don’t know what more to say.”

Yet in an interesting twist of logic, Tucker Bounds, spokesman for John McCain, says the McCain concurs with Obama’s spokesman, Bill Burton, who said in a statement: “The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.”

Are Americans really so dense that we won’t ‘get’ the cover? Is our collective sense of judgment really so occluded by an insistence on literalism that we won’t recognize that not only is this not ‘tasteless and offensive’ to the Obama campaign, it in fact makes the opposite point: What is tasteless and offensive are the tactics used to create doubt about Obama’s American allegiance.

Are we all like Linnea’s workshop teacher, calling the drawing of a dagger inappropriate simply because it is a dagger? Does the image of a turban on a cartoon drawing of Barack Obama really lend credence to the absurd allegations against Obama’s patriotic commitment?

Is subtlety lost on us?

I suppose it’s hard to say; after all, we elected George W. Bush president a second time (or a first time the second time, depending on your view of history).

But I’m not yet ready to believe that just because content and context are parted so frequently—news bites excised from the whole of the story time and time again—that Americans have little or no capacity to comprehend satire or understand subtlety.

As of this writing, Barack Obama himself has made no comment. Let’s hope he keeps it that way and keeps faith in the America that gets and loves the heritage of its satirists—Bierce and Bruce, Lardner and Lehrer, Mencken and Irving, Vonnegut and Heller—and of course, Mark Twain who said it most clearly: “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”

—Jo Page


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